No. 56 pick can decide: Hall of Fame — or Shame?

April 24, 2013 

The Seattle Seahawks don’t figure to be first-round players in the NFL draft, which begins Thursday and will run, well, longer than the typical human brain is wired to tolerate.

Any war room occupied by John Schneider and Pete Carroll is capable of startling the world’s burgeoning population of draft pundits — see “Irvin, Bruce” — but given salary-cap restrictions and the duo’s penchant for identifying fiscally fit contributors after Round 1, it’s almost certain the Seahawks will use their first selection on the 56th overall pick.

If tradition holds, this much can be expected Friday:

 • You either know little about him, or nothing at all. Do the names Mike Neal, Tim Crowder and Chris Chester ring a bell? Each has been taken at No. 56 since 2006.

 • He’ll be a cinch to make the roster. The last No. 56 pick denied a spot on an NFL team — McNeese State center James Files, chosen by the Steelers — was in 1976, when 17 rounds were squeezed into two days. In other words, the draft’s Paleolithic Era.

 • If this year’s 56th pick someday is voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’ll be historic. Since the inaugural 1936 draft, no 56th pick has so much as merited consideration. Tackle Fred Williams participated in four Pro Bowls after he was drafted in 1952, but Williams had to settle for a more modest legacy: second-most accomplished former University of Arkansas defensive lineman (behind Dan Hampton) to play on a Bears championship team.

 • Speaking of the Pro Bowl, held annually since 1950: Six players chosen 56th have made it, which puts the chances of the next 56th choice of making it at about 1 in 10. The only active 56th choice with Pro Bowl experience is defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who recently signed with the Falcons as a free agent after a

decade with the Giants.

 • The 56th selection of the draft will be recalled as somebody whose NFL career tragically ended, or somebody whose NFL career served as a springboard for a lucrative livelihood beyond football, or somebody, more likely, who was able to hang on for a few years before ceding his place in the circle of pro-football life to a younger, healthier replacement.

No story of a 56th selection is more heartbreaking than that of Darrent Williams. The Broncos’ starting cornerback, a 2005 pick out of Oklahoma State, had been celebrating New Year’s Eve in downtown Denver with some teammates and friends when he was fatally wounded by a gunshot early on the morning of Jan. 1, 2007. A passenger in a rented limo, Williams has a depressingly familiar epitaph: He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Williams lost his life in a split second. Dave Pear, a former University of Washington defensive tackle selected at No. 56 by the Colts in 1975, lost any definition of a normal life after he suffered a herniated disc in his neck and continued to play for the Raiders. Pear picked up a Super Bowl ring after the 1980 season, and he hasn’t picked up much of anything since.

Pear has endured several surgeries that have turned the simple task of waking up and getting out of bed into a challenge. He suffers from vertigo and memory loss.

“I wish I never had played football,” Pear told Sports Illustrated in 2008. “I wish that more than anything. I want to take back those years of my life.”

John Frank, an Ohio State tight end taken by the 49ers as No. 56 choice of the 1984 draft, probably was familiar with Pear’s post-football ordeal. At the pinnacle of his career, when he was seen as a reliable target for quarterback Joe Montana, Frank called it quits after five seasons. The future hair transplant surgeon was already enrolled in medical school.

Bill Walsh’s 49ers, by the way, enjoyed some good vibes with 56th draft choices. Two years after San Francisco chose Frank, it selected Nebraska fullback Tom Rathman, who became a mainstay in the West Coast offense. And in 1989, the Niners drafted Mississippi tight end Wesley Walls, who replaced Frank. (Walls didn’t achieve stardom, however, until he signed as a free agent with Carolina, where he went to five Pro Bowls.)

Showcasing the disparity inherent in a 56th pick are two kickers: Jason Hanson from Washington State and Todd Sauerbrun from West Virginia. Hanson finally retired after 2012, his 21st consecutive season in Detroit. Nobody played more games with one football team than Hanson with the Lions.

Sauerbrun was drafted by the Bears as a punter — they saw him as the next Ray Guy — but his extraordinary leg strength offered him another gig as a conventional kicker. Sauerbrun never got comfortable with his dual role. For that matter, he never got comfortable with punting, his sole role.

Sauerbrun booted for five teams, and booted is the operative word: A DUI here, a fight with a taxi driver there, a positive test for performance-enhancing supplements in between.

Here was an NFL athlete with a specialty that spared him from the occupational hazards of a brutal sport, and all he gave back was headaches.

Anyway, here’s to the 56th overall picks who gave back something more: Packers offensive tackle Bob Skoronski, from Vince Lombardi’s dynasty, and quarterback Lynn Dickey, who threw for a bunch of yards between Green Bay dynasties.

Jon Kolb didn’t gain much acclaim with the Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls, but he was the left tackle who had Terry Bradshaw’s back. Todd Christensen, a fullback by trade, wasn’t thrilled when the Cowboys decided he had potential as a tight end. The position conversion worked better with the Raiders.

For every hit at No. 56, there are a dozen misses: draft choices who will make the team but won’t substantially contribute.

Schneider and Carroll don’t subscribe to this kind of conventional thinking. They’re thinking elsewhere. They’re thinking out there.

They’re thinking that if nobody drafted 56th has made it to the Hall of Fame, why can’t it be the guy taken by Seattle, to play for the Seahawks?


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